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The Scottish Government commenced 2017 by announcing a public consultation on legislation designed to ensure that all Scottish public bodies have equal numbers of men and women in their non-executive membership.

As well as setting a 50:50 gender representation objective, the legislation implements a “Tie-Breaker Provision”. This means that when there are two or more equally qualified candidates the candidate of the under-represented sex must be appointed, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Glasgow Employment LawyerThe Bill also places duties on public authorities to take steps to encourage applications from the under-represented gender to become a member of the public body.

Women continue to be underrepresented in political, civic and public life as well as in the Boardroom. Women make up just: 35% of members of the Scottish Parliament; 29% of members of the House of Commons; 24% of local government councillors in Scotland and 26.1% of FTSE 100 boards.

In 2015 the Scottish Government, for the first time, appointed more women than men to regulated public boards.  The numbers now sit at an all-time high of 42%.

However, despite making up 51.5% of Scotland’s population the quest to have 50:50 representation proves ever illusive.

Positive Action

Over the last 20 years positive action measures have made a huge difference to the makeup of elected representatives. The Labour Party led the way, in the run up to the 1997 General Election, with women-only shortlists.

In May 1997 more women than ever before were elected to the House of Commons. 120 in total. Exactly double the number elected in 1992. 101 of those were Labour women.

There is no doubt that the Labour Party’s quest to select women, and thereby secure a Parliament which is more reflective of the people, whom it seeks to represent, was a success.

The reason? : Positive action and all women shortlists.

Equality Act 2010

In 2010 Labour’s Harriet Harman MP, took the Equality Act 2010 through the Houses of Parliament. Contained within that legislation is provision extending the scope of positive action, both in terms of political parties, in employment recruitment and promotion, and in general. These provisions allow account to be taken, in certain circumstances, of a candidate’s protected characteristic. This can be done when the person is “as qualified” as another candidate and the employer think that the protected group is at a disadvantage or is under represented.

Through the Smith Commission it was these powers, as they apply to public bodies, which were transferred to the Scottish Parliament. 

What difference will it make?

Quotas backed by legislation are one of the most significant ways of effecting change.

It is positive to see a Government leading from the front on this issue. It is clear that legislation is undoubtedly needed. Organisations, whether public or private sector, political parties or the judiciary, simply do not appoint women in the numbers which reflect the contribution women can make to public life, not to mention the density and quality of the women available. Warm words and fluffy voluntary measures are no longer good enough. Action needs to be taken.

Women’s voices must be heard and women sitting on public boards, participating in public life, undoubtedly means that our services and organisations will better reflect the modern Scotland in which we live.  

If this works, is successful, and the sky doesn’t fall in (!), it will be a very strong argument to impose similar measures regarding decision making positions in private companies. Although the Scottish Parliament do not have powers on this issue at present, it is unclear what the future holds. It is about time that companies and institutions reflect the diverse ideas and talents which they claim to promote.

However, the presence of women, alone, is not sufficient. Policies and practices must be ingrained within an organisation, and there must be support for senior women to make sure that the measures work, in practice, and effect real change.

Blog by Jillian Merchant, Glasgow Employment Lawyer

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